Ukraine at D+267: Defense-in-depth and an operational pause.
N2K logoNov 18, 2022

Russia prepares defenses-in-depth east of the Dnipro. Cyberspace has remained relatively quiet.

Ukraine at D+267: Defense-in-depth and an operational pause.

Little news has broken concerning cyber activity in Russia's war against Ukraine, and operations on the ground have entered a relatively quiet phase. The missile that struck a Polish farm seems now likely to have been a wayward Ukrainian air defense weapon fired during Russia's ongoing program of strikes against Ukrainian infrastructure.

A Dutch court has convicted three Russians of murder in the 2014 shootdown of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014. The Washington Post reports, "Those convicted are Igor Girkin, a former colonel of the FSB, Russia’s security service, who later served as defense minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic" (and a hard-war man who's been often heard from during the Special Military Operation); "Sergey Dubinsky, a former officer of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency; and Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian commander of separatist forces in Donbas."

A claim that's recently circulated in social media to the effect that failed cryptocurrency exchange FTX had been laundering aid to Ukraine so it could be redirected to US political organizations (mostly the Democratic Party) seems baseless, too short on evidence to be either confirmed or debunked. Newsweek has an account of the theory and the reasons for thinking it implausible at best.

Russia prepares defenses in depth.

Russian forces, having completed their retreat across the Dnipro, are preparing fixed defenses-in-depth and readying a renewed offensive toward Bakhmut in Donetsk. The UK's morning situation report said: "Following the withdrawal of its forces from west of the Dnipro River, Russian forces continue to prioritise refitting, reorganisation and the preparation of defences across most sectors in Ukraine. Units have constructed new trench systems near the border of Crimea, as well as near the Siversky-Donets River between Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. Some of these locations are up to 60km behind the current front line, suggesting that Russian planners are making preparations in case of further major Ukrainian breakthroughs. It is likely that Russia will attempt to eventually redeploy some of the forces recovered from Kherson to reinforce and expand its offensive operations near the town of Bakhmut in Donetsk Oblast."

President Putin's low profile.

Russian President Putin had been, until recently, visibly hands-on in his direction of the war against Ukraine. The announcement of the withdrawal from Kherson, however, was left to Defense Minister Shoigu in a bit of chain-of-command theater enacted on state television, with General Surovkin cast in the role of professional officer advising a life-saving regrouping for humanitarian reasons. The AP reports that President Putin has stayed away from delivering or being associated with bad news. Better that the leader remain strong and wise, and so better to leave failure for attribution to wicked advisors around the throne. Watch your back, Mr. Shoigu.

The case against (and for) early negotiations.

But a distancing of the president from bad news does not seem to augur regime collapse. Foreign Policy outlines the current state of Russian elite opinion, which has a long-standing fear of anarchy and disintegration, and the obstacles that climate of opinion presents to any program of compromise or negotiation.

Among those suggesting early negotiations, albeit with hedging and reservations about the possibility (not likely, but nonetheless real) of a Russian collapse, has been US General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and thus the senior American uniformed officer. The General's reasoning fundamentally comes down to a conclusion that Russia, for all the battlefield ineptitude it's displayed, still has a considerable untapped military potential that make its complete defeat a difficult goal to achieve, that negotiations are inevitable at some point, and that Ukraine is likely to get its best settlement when it's enjoying success. He explained his views this Wednesday, during a media availability with Defense Secretary Austin:

"So, in terms of probability, the probability of a Ukrainian military victory defined as kicking the Russians out of all of Ukraine to include what they define or what the claim is Crimea, the probability of that happening anytime soon is not high, militarily. Politically, there may be a political solution where, politically, the Russians withdraw, that's possible. You want to negotiate from a position of strength. Russia right now is on its back.

"The Russian military is suffering tremendously. Leaders have been, you know, their leadership is really hurting bad. They've lost a lot of casualties, killed and wounded. They've lost -- I won't go over exact numbers because they're classified, but they've lost a tremendous amount of their tanks and their infantry fighting vehicles. They've lost a lot of their fourth and fifth-generation fighters and helicopters and so on and so forth.

The Russian military is really hurting bad. So, you want to negotiate at a time when you're at your strength and your opponent is at weakness. And it's possible, maybe that there'll be a political solution. All I'm -- all I'm saying is there's a possibility for it. That's all I'm saying."

An essay in Foreign Policy argues that this is a mistake, that the "logic of the battlefield" should determine the timing of negotiations, and that Ukraine should be encouraged and enabled to continue its now successful campaigns. Why give a losing force the gift of retaining what it still controls?

There are also the consequences of permitting Russia to retain its gains to consider. An Atlantic Council essay reflects on the liberation of Kherson, and--especially--on the evidence of repression, fear, and atrocity the retreating Russian forces left behind them. The conclusion the essay draws is that it's premature to negotiate a settlement. Doing so would leave large numbers of Ukrainian civilians in Russian hands. "As the war enters a potentially decisive period," the piece concludes, "it is vital to keep in mind that any compromise would come with crippling costs. For Ukraine, it would mean betraying and abandoning millions of citizens. For Western leaders, it would mean empowering Putin while sacrificing the foundational values of the democratic world. The problems posed by an aggressive and revisionist Russia would be unresolved, but the West’s position would be significantly weaker."